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Apples draw Afghans to Valley
The Afghan delegation at a training centre in Srinagar

Rangreth (Budgam), May 19: For years, the only visitors from Afghanistan to Kashmir have been militants, guns slung across their taut shoulders. Last week, a 15-strong contingent landed — to learn how to grow more apples and pear.

The delegation, from Afghanistan’s agriculture ministry, arrived on Saturday to train at the Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture, in possibly a sign of ebbing violence in the Valley, racked by insurgency since the late eighties.

Afghanistan, however, continued to bleed. A suicide bomber attacked a Nato-led military convoy during rush hour in Kabul on Tuesday, killing 12 civilians and six foreign troops, showing how tenuous peace was in the troubled country.

But for two weeks at least, the Afghan delegation seems to have left all that behind. “We are from all parts of Afghanistan. This is a great opportunity for us to hone our skills because of the technological advancement in India,” team leader Shah Farooq Omary said.

The visit is perhaps the first such by an official Afghan delegation in the last 20 years and the team members said the training would help boost crop productivity in their country, often in the news for rising cultivation of poppy, one of Afghanistan’s main revenue earners.

Delegation member Fardad Jalily said they grabbed the opportunity to visit Kashmir when they learnt about the trip. “It is such a beautiful place to visit,” he said. “All of us were delighted.”

Officials said the visitors were state guests and would receive training at the sprawling horticulture institute, which caters to research needs of India’s entire temperate belt, including Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and some Northeast states.

The road to the institute passes through a secured area that houses the headquarters of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, one of the biggest military formations in the Valley.

Institute director Nazir Ahmad said climatic conditions in Kashmir and Afghanistan were similar and many fruit and crop varieties grown in the Valley also grew in the Central Asian neighbour.

“This is the first visit of any international delegation to our institute and we hope the technological advancements we have made will help them. Fruits like apple, almonds, grapes and apricots are grown in Afghanistan, but this training programme can help them improve production and introduce new varieties,” he said.

“Our centre is involved in identification and development of high-yielding varieties and hybrids, appropriate production and protection technologies, post-harvest management and production of quality seeds,” Ahmad added.

The director said the per-hectare yield of apples and pear in Afghanistan was 7.48 tonnes and 10 tonnes, while technological advancement had helped double per hectare apple and pear production in Kashmir to 30 tonnes each from 12 and 15 tonnes, respectively.

Kashmir, though, has something to learn from Afghanistan, which is ahead in almond production at 3.5 tonnes per hectare, compared with only a tonne in the Valley.

Institute officials said the advancement in technology could help Afghanistan shift from poppy to fruits. “Naturally, when we earn more from horticulture, it will curtail poppy production,” Ahmad said.

Kashmir’s relations with Afghanistan go back centuries but the rise of insurgency meant the only visitors since the nineties were groups of armed Afghans who sneaked in from across the border to help Kashmiri militants.

Although Pakistani militants far outnumbered them, all foreign militants came to be largely identified as Afghans, perhaps because of their fighting abilities.

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